LOS ANGELES — Carlos Vela couldn't have wrapped up his extraordinary campaign, the finest seen in Major League Soccer's 24 years, more spectacularly than he did Sunday afternoon, with a hat trick of immense quality to set a new all-time MLS goals record and pull away in a Golden Boot presented by Audi race that had grown tighter and tighter in the regular season's final weeks.
Nobody in the LAFC camp was surprised in the least, and that probably goes for the rest of MLS, too. Everyone has watched Vela dominate foes all season, leading the second-year club to heights unseen in league annals, so when Zlatan Ibrahimovic tallied just nine minutes into the LA Galaxy's clash at Houston to trim the Mexican star's lead in the scoring race to just a goal, it was just a matter of time before the LAFC star would conjure a response.
That was never in doubt.
And what a response. Vela netted his 32nd goal — one more than the record Atlanta United's Josef Martinez set last year and Vela tied in LAFC's draw last weekend at Minnesota United — and then a 33rd and 34th, just his second MLS hat trick (watch it below).
It carried the Supporters' Shield winners to a 3-1 triumph over the visiting Colorado Rapids, and pushed them to several achievements that, when added together, make a strong case that this is the greatest team in MLS history.
Of course, LAFC needs to carry on and next month capture MLS Cup to truly claim that crown, but the numbers are in their favor.
Vela was at the heart of these accomplishments, and he offered some of his finest work Sunday afternoon at Banc of California Stadium.
“When the opportunity presents itself, he takes it,” defender Jordan Harvey noted about an hour after the final whistle. “And that's been the story of this season, is taking the opportunity when it comes.”
Vela took the opportunity so often this year, hitting the net 34 times and assisting teammates on 15 more goals, the third-best total in MLS. He had a foot in several more tallies, but considering just the 49 on which he received credit, that's more than seven MLS clubs netted all year.
His first two goals Sunday were beauties. He gave LAFC a 28th minute lead, taking a feed just above the box from Latif Blessing, separating from retreating defender Keegan Rosenberry, then bending the ball toward the upper-left corner, out of reach for Rapids goalkeeper Tim Howard.
“You knew he was scoring tonight, it was just a matter of how many and the style,” defender Steven Beitashour said. “That curler, you almost feel bad for Howard. It's, like, what do you want him to do there?”
His third, to make it 3-1, was the easiest, a one-touch deposit at the edge of the six-yard box from Blackmon's pass on a counterattack.
That's five straight games in which Vela has scored. He's hit the net in 25 games, with LAFC going 17W-1L-7D, the lone loss to their crosstown rivals. It was his second hat trick and seventh multi-goal game of the year.
“We're all proud to see Carlos finish off that way,” head coach Bob Bradley said to start his postgame media session. “[It's] special for everyone. I said to everyone inside [the locker room] that everybody in the club — the players, the staff — is so happy for him, because as a guy, he's so positive. He's a great teammate, he's good to the people around him everyday, and he's had just a special, special year. That is first, that we're all incredibly proud of what he's accomplished.
“He'd be the first to say it comes from the work as a team and all his teammates and the football and the way things get done everyday.”
Teammate Mark-Anthony Kaye was just as effusive as Bradley when speaking about his captain:
Vela acknowledged he'd achieved more than he expected this season.
“Always when I start the season, I dream high, but [it doesn't] always happen,” he said. “This time everything was successful, everything was in a good way, and I really enjoyed every day of the season. I'm really happy for that.”
While the Golden Boot was somewhat in doubt heading into Sunday, one award that likely isn't is the Landon Donovan MLS MVP Award.
“Regardless of whether he broke the goal record today or not,” said John Thorrington, LAFC's general manager and EVP of soccer operations, “he's had the best season in the history of this league. I am glad to see that it's now unequivocally in doubt, [given his] goals and assists, his involvement in goals, his involvement in our record goal differential, all those things. How it came together today was special."